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By AMANDA POPE
April 17, 2018

Ellen Hyslop, Jacie deHoop and Roslyn McLarty, co-founders of The Gist, of one five Digital News Innovation Challenge finalists. (Courtesy of The Gist)

A news outlet providing sports coverage tailored to a female audience and a pop-up journalism site designed to keep citizens connected to their local communities are among the five startups awarded up to $100,000 as part of the Digital News Innovation Challenge.

The Challenge, a partnership between the Facebook Journalism Project, Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) and the Ryerson School of Journalism, aims to support digital news ideas that will drive innovation for news organizations and journalism. The startups will spend from April to September in Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space. In addition to support for early-stage startups, participants will be provided with workspace and access to high-profile senior mentors, workshops featuring digital news experts in Canada, and the opportunity to work with journalists, researchers and investors.

“We’re genuinely excited about the mix of approaches and experiences the teams are bringing to the DNIC,” said Asmaa Malik, innovation lead and graduate program director at the Ryerson School of Journalism. “They’re tackling some of the most pressing challenges facing journalism in Canada: amplifying the reach and power of local news and understanding how deeply people engage with news, as well looking ahead to explore how emerging technologies can connect new audiences.”

The $100,000 in seed capital provided by Facebook will be distributed in phases beginning with the release of $20,000 to each startup. Each team will receive two additional installments of $20,000 upon completion of clearly identified milestones. At the end of September, there will be a final demo day where teams will pitch to high-profile investors and be eligible for a final $40,000. In addition to access to seed money, startups will each receive a Facebook marketing budget of up to $50,000 to promote their innovations on the social platform.

The startups selected as part of the Challenge offer a wide range of solutions, from platforms supporting on-the-ground reporting to AI-content analytics for publishers. The Gist, co-founded by Ellen Hyslop, Jacie deHoop and Roslyn McLarty, is a digital sports news business that curates and contextualizes sports content for a female audience.

“Women tend to be left out of the [sports] conversations in boardrooms, social gatherings and events,” Hyslop said, “mostly because they didn’t watch the game last night.” As a result, she said, women are at a disadvantage when it comes to developing important relationships in both personal and professional settings.

The Gist online platform provides a weekly newsletter and daily Instagram posts with timely and informative content about the top sports headlines. Its website also includes a glossary and guides for hockey, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis and golf. These guides explain how the sport is played and organized, identifies the best players and the top women in the sport, and provides trivia. The Gist team, which is based in Toronto, also coordinates viewing parties that brings together women to watch sports games.

“We are hoping that the Gist can be a tool to inform women so they can use sports as an equalizer,” Hyslop said, noting that only 14 per cent of sports journalists are female.

Ground, founded by Harleen Kaur and Sukh Singh of Waterloo, Ont., is an online app that delivers news with real people reporting from when and where it happens. The app uses AI and human verification to weed out fake news and fake viral videos.

Ground picks up signals from social media platforms, traditional news organizations and news reported by Ground users. News stories are then filtered through the AI algorithm and users in the location of the reported news are notified by AI-composed requests for photos, videos and commentary. Ground users at the location are asked to confirm if the story as true or fake and each news story gets a verification score depending on how many people are verifying or debunking it, and the past credibility of each of the users. Verified news is disseminated to the user base while false stories are flagged as “fake” to clearly warn users against it.

If there is peak activity on social media in the area of Ryerson, for example, and the repeated word is fire, the Ground system will send out automated notifications to people near that location asking them to confirm whether there is in fact a fire, Kaur said in an interview. Ground can then break that news faster than other news outlets because of the verification by eye-witnesses. After the news is verified, Ground collects users’ content and photos and ensures it is has not been subject to tampering.

“We believe that technology has actually done a lot of disservice to journalists as opposed to helping them,” said Kaur, who is a former NASA engineer. “With Ground, we are putting verification at the forefront. We are using technology that takes social media information and the publishers’ information, and puts it together. So journalists can use Ground to get breaking news confirmed and commentary from people who are on the ground.”

Readefined, founded by Mario Vasilescu, Richard Tuck and Matei Vasilescu, is a piece of lightweight code that digital content publishers can install on their site. Rather than relying on second-degree data, like how a story was liked or shared on social media, or vague metrics like clicks or time on page, the technology helps publishers determine if visitors are really paying attention, how intensely, and why.

While some of the startup finalists focus on technology, others support local news.

Jeremy Klaszus of Calgary, for instance, says the decline of local news media in Calgary means Calgarians are disconnected from what’s going on in their community. To solve this, Klaszus founded the Sprawl– a pop-up form of journalism that can be set up and taken down according to coverage needs. The digital model means the site does not have to cover everything all the time, and instead allows for it to focus on one story or issue at a time and fill in gaps in coverage by traditional news media.

“It’s of interest to the journalism industry because we’ve been able to have a high level of engagement– which is what every news organization is seeking,” said Klaszus, a Calgary journalist who has written about the city for 15 years   for the Calgary Herald, Metro, CBC and CTV. “It’s participatory in a lot of ways because with the Sprawl’s model, I don’t have to worry about the next day’s newspaper or a newscast to fill. I have the freedom to adapt and to engage people on a deeper level rather than only feeding [audiences] news.”

Trebble.fm, the fifth project, is an online platform designed to distribute newscasts on voice-activated devices such as Amazon Echo or Google Home. With the loss of so many local newspapers, Armel Beaudry said his Ottawa-based media startup makes it easier for journalists to share news coverage and for audiences to find local content. Community journalists, for instance, can share newscasts with their audience using “capsules”– audio messages that journalists can record through the platform to play to listeners.

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

March 26, 2018

Digital Media Zone Executive Director Abdullah Snobar (Courtesy Paul Steward)

The Digital News Innovation Challenge has attracted 70 proposals from teams hoping to receive up to $100,000 in seed money and support for their ideas to drive innovation in journalism.

The Challenge, a partnership between the Facebook Journalism Project, the Digital Media Zone (DMZ) and the Ryerson School of Journalism, accepted applications between Jan. 25 through to March 9, 2018. The adjudication team, including representatives from the DMZ and the Ryerson School of Journalism, have reviewed all applications and invited a dozen finalists to pitch their business ideas to the adjudicators. The five successful applicants admitted to the five-month program will be announced on April 5, 2018.

“We’re looking for founders and aspiring entrepreneurs with innovative digital news and storytelling ideas that can be turned into sustainable businesses,” said Abdullah Snobar, executive director of the DMZ. “These ideas must have a technological component at their core, in solving a compelling problem within the Canadian digital news and journalism landscape.”

The startups will spend from April to September in Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space. In addition to receiving support for entrepreneurial ideas and early-stage startups, participants will gain access to workspace in Ryerson’s DMZ, high-profile senior mentors, workshops designed by digital news experts in Canada and the opportunity to work with journalists, researchers, investors and other experts.

The $100,000 in seed capital will be distributed in phases starting with the release of $20,000 to each participant at the beginning of the Challenge. Each team will receive two additional installments of $20,000 upon completion of clearly identified milestones. At the end of September, there will be a final presentation where teams will pitch to high-profile investors and be eligible for another $40,000.

In addition to the seed money, the successful participants will each receive a Facebook marketing budget of up to $50,000 to promote their innovations on the social platform.

Feb. 5, 2018

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Producer and broadcaster Jesse Wente delivers his keynote lecture at the launch of the Digital News Innovation Challenge at Ryerson University. (Amanda Pope)

A website to help children understand the news, a mobile platform that provides newsrooms with better access to eyewitness videos, and an online platform for distributing newscasts on voice-activated devices were among the ideas-in-progress at the recent launch of the Digital News Innovation Challenge.

Nearly 100 journalists, aspiring entrepreneurs and students attended the Jan. 25 launch of the Canada-wide incubation program in Ryerson University’s DMZ. The event was an opportunity to learn more about how to become one of five journalism startups accepted into the Facebook-sponsored program. The teams selected through the Challenge process will each have access to up to $100,000 in seed capital.

Participants attending Digital News Innovation: Framing the Challenge heard working journalists, scholars, DMZ leaders and officials from Facebook outline the selection procedure as well as specific journalism challenges in need of entrepreneurial solutions.

“These days, the most captivating footage of any event is usually captured by someone on the scene with a smartphone,” said Andrei Sabau, the founder of Seen, a platform he says will make it easier for news organizations to discover, verify and license photos and video published online. “While we can be certain that most events are well documented by those in attendance, the inability for news organizations to quickly and securely access that content leads to a slow dissemination of information. Global events take hours to be clearly communicated to the broader population, while many local stories are never covered.”

The Challenge, a partnership between the Facebook Journalism Project, the DMZ and the Ryerson School of Journalism, will accept applications now through to March 9. The five applicants admitted to the program will be announced this spring. In addition to access to seed money, participants will each receive a Facebook marketing budget of up to $50,000 to promote their innovations on the social platform.

The startups will spend from April to September in Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space. In addition to accessing support for entrepreneurial ideas and early-stage startups, participants will gain access to high-profile senior mentors, workshops designed by digital news experts in Canada, workspace in Ryerson’s DMZ and the opportunity to work with investors, journalists, experts and researchers.

Richard Lachman, Ryerson’s director of zone learning, said that, among other qualities, adjudicators will be looking for applicants who are coachable: “If you are so fixated on your idea that you are sure you have the most brilliant thing in the world, you probably shouldn’t apply. We are hoping to help. We have expertise to help you pivot that idea, to alter that idea, to become coached with all the expertise around. We are looking for people who are open to refining their ideas based on the program.”

The $100,000 in seed capital will be dispersed in phases beginning with the release of $20,000 to each participant at the start of the Challenge. Each team will receive two more installments of $20,000 upon completion of clearly identified milestones. At the end of September, there will be a final presentation where teams will be eligible for another $40,000.

The launch included a mini symposium that explored journalism-related challenges, including how to attract and retain audiences, the impacts of an advertising-based model on traditional journalism, and the social impacts of obtaining news from platforms that weren’t purpose-built for journalism.

Jesse Wente, the event’s keynote speaker, identified the disconnect between news organizations and their audiences as a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

“When large institutions fail to be inclusive and at the same time their audiences are rapidly becoming more diverse, you have a recipe for irrelevance,” said Wente, an Ojibwe broadcaster and columnist on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning. “What happens is you create…enormous gaps where people cannot find themselves in your coverage. They don’t see stories that represent them, that speak to the issues that are present in their daily lives.”

During a panel on the state of local news media, April Lindgren, an associate professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism, outlined a list of problems besetting local news organizations.

“We need ideas that make it easy for local news organizations to engage with their audiences or build them; ideas that measure the impact of individual local news stories; … ideas that make it easier for citizens to contribute to local coverage; and innovations for older audiences that aren’t really digitally savvy,” said Lindgren, who leads the Local News Research Project.

She said her research shows that local news is at risk and unevenly available across Canada. The latest data from the Local News Map, which Lindgren created with the University of British Columbia’s Jon Corbett, shows that 238 local news outlets have closed since 2008, including 212 newspapers in 173 communities. Most were community newspapers that published fewer than five times per week.

Radha Tailor, a senior correspondent for the Bramptonist, said residents in Brampton are news deprived: “Brampton has a population of around 600,000 people, but we are limited on news accessibility. We don’t have our own television channel. There is a huge challenge in that people have not been interested in the news in Brampton for a long time. How do we make them interested?”

The lack of full time staff at the Bramptonist, she said, also means there is no time for innovation: “We have a small team of eight and everyone is freelance or on contract. We don’t have anyone there that is full-time.”

Laura Ellis, the head of online for English regions at the BBC, said the challenges faced by local journalism in the United Kingdom are similar to what is happening in Canada. The United Kingdom has lost about 200 local newspapers over the last decade, she said, along with about half of the journalists who once worked in local news.

The BBC, Ellis said, is seeking to address this “democratic deficit” by hiring reporters to cover civic institutions, placing them in local newsrooms, and sharing their content far and wide.

“We cannot go to council meetings and people are getting away with stuff,” Ellis said. “We now have 150 new journalists who will be covering their institutions, including local councils and health boards. They will be publishing stories everyday online and in the newspapers.”

While panelists outlined a long list of journalism challenges in need of solutions, many in the audience already had ideas in the works.

Trebble.fm is an online platform to distribute newscasts on voice-activated devices such as Google Home or Alexa. Armel Beaudry said his media startup makes it easier for audiences to find local content and for journalists to share news coverage. Local journalists, for instance, can share newscasts with their audience using “capsules”– audio messages that journalists can record through the platform to play to listeners.

With the loss of so many local newspapers, Beaudry says, “there is a need to better distribute local journalism. There are a lot of people who want news and content but there is only coverage with a broad appeal and a limited amount of coverage with a local appeal.”

Teaching Kids News, co-founded by Joyce Grant, is an online site that publishes stories about the news of the day with extra context and in language children can understand. The team of volunteer journalists working on the site also produces curriculum and grammar questions for every news article that children can understand and that is relevant for teachers and parents who are homeschooling their offspring. Grant said she would use the Challenge funds to pay the volunteers and build her startup.

“We’re looking for expertise and information on how to monetize our innovative idea,” said Grant. “It is really exciting to think we may be able to get into this program and learn what we need to learn. Everything that they’re offering is what we are looking for– a space to work out of, a community to get information from, and contacts and funding. This program can help us to take our idea that is solving a problem and build it.”

Dec. 13, 2017

By AMANDA POPE
Staff reporter

Sandbox, a skills development space within Ryerson University’s business incubator the Digital Media Zone, will house five digital news startups. (Courtesy Ryerson University)

Five Canadian journalism entrepreneurs will each receive up to $100,000 in seed money for their early-stage startups as a result of a new program designed to encourage journalism innovation.

In addition to the seed money, each of the finalists in the Digital News Innovation Challenge will receive a Facebook marketing budget of $50,000 to promote their company’s innovation on the social platform. The partnership, between the Facebook Journalism Project, the DMZ and the Ryerson School of Journalism, will support digital news ideas and tech companies that drive innovation for journalism and news organizations.

“A lot of the traditional business models of journalism are floundering and are not finding the readers and audiences they want,” said Janice Neil, the chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism. “ This program will let people explore and create other options and give people a place to think of new ideas– new content that will be appealing, new ways of getting information or new ways of gathering information.”

The program, which will run from April through to September 2018, offers the five startups a place at Sandbox, the DMZ’s skills development space offering support to entrepreneurial ideas and early-stage startups. The entrepreneurs will gain access to high-profile senior mentors; workshops designed by digital news experts in Canada; workspace in Ryerson’s DMZ – the leading university-based business incubator in North America; and the opportunity to work with investors, journalists, experts and researchers.

Neil said the initiative is important for the Ryerson School of Journalism because it offers opportunities to explore new ways of producing quality journalism.

“This is an opportunity to put the Ryerson brand on this program but more importantly, to give our faculty and students the chance to engage with people who have ideas or experts (who are a) part of the process by attending workshops and modules,” Neil said.

Asmaa Malik, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism, said the program is an opportunity for students and faculty members to learn more about journalism innovation.

“There will be robust educational components in terms of a conference talking about frontiers in news and what people are doing across the world,” Malik said. “We spend a lot of time learning about traditional journalism in the classroom so I think this program will bring a different approach to journalism in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“There is a lot for students to learn and for us as a journalism school in terms of looking forward and the changes we need to make as a journalism school.”

The adjudicators, who have yet to be announced, will be looking for projects that tackle a compelling problem within the Canadian digital news and journalism landscape. Successful applicants must have a strong business model, a collaborative leadership team and innovative digital news and storytelling ideas that can be turned into sustainable businesses.

“The money is a great incentive,” Malik said. “We don’t have a robust startup culture like the U.S., like Silicon Valley. So I think when it comes to an investment, this is a great investment for a new Canadian startup.

“It will make the challenge quite exciting in terms of who applies and who shows interest. There will be a lot of competition.”

At the end of the program, there will be a demo day where the startups will present their companies and ideas to a panel of judges, mentors and industry leaders.

Malik, who teaches entrepreneurial journalism to undergraduates and graduate students in the School of Journalism, said the purpose of this Canada-wide program is to drive innovation and find the people who care about the future of journalism and the news.

“The goal is to find unexpected approaches to solving some of the big problems in content, distribution, the diversity of perspectives or access to news and information,” Malik said. “This is a great opportunity to see what people across Canada are up to.”

Applications for the Digital News Innovation Challenge will open on Jan. 25, 2018 and will close on March 9, 2018.